Thomas Babington Macaulay Macaulay.

Critical, historical, and miscellaneous essays online

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blundering rattle. But on this point the evidence is



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166 OLIVER GOLDSMITH.

overwhelming. So extraordinary was the contrast be-
tween Goldsmith's published works and the silly things
which he said, that Horace Walpole described him as
an inspired idiot. " Noll," said Grarrick, " wrote like
an angel, and talked like poor Pol." Chamier de-
clared that it was a hard exercise of faith to believe
that so foolish a chatterer could have really written the
" Traveller." Even Boswell could say, with contempt-
uous compassion, that he liked very well to hear hon*
est Goldsmith run on. " Yes, sir," said Johnson ;
" but he should not Hke to hear himself." Minds dif-
fer as rivers differ. There are transparent and spark-
ling rivers from which it is delightful to drink as they
flow ; to such rivers the minds of such men as Burke
and Johnson may be compared. But there are rivers
of which the water when first drawn is turbid and
noisome, but becomes pellucid as crystal, and delicious
to the taste, if it be suffered to stand till it has de-
posited a sediment ; and such a river is a type of the
mind of Goldsmith. His first thoughts on every sub-
ject were confused even to absurdity ; but diey re-
quired only a little time to work themselves clear.
When he wrote they had that time ; and therefore his
readers pronounced him a man of genius : but when
he talked he talked nonsense, and made himself the
laughing-stock of his hearers. He was painfully sen-
sible of his inferiority in conversation ; he felt everv
failure keenly ; yet he had not sufficient judgment and
self-command to hold his tongue. His animal spirits
and vanity were. always impelling him to try to do the
one thing which he could not do. After every attempt
he felt that he had exposed himself, and writhed with
shame and vexation ; yet the next moment he began
again.



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OLIVER GOLDSMITH. 1G7

His associates seem to have regarded him with kind-
ness, which, in spite of their admiration of his writings,
was not unmixed with contempt. In tnith, there was
in his character much to love, but very little to respect.
His heart was soft even to weakness : he was so gen-
erous that he quite foi^ot to be just ; he forgave inju-
ries so readily that he might be said to invite them ;
and was so liberal to beggars that he had nothing left
for his tailor and his butcher. He was vain, sensual,
frivolous, profuse, improvident. One vice of a darker
shade was imputed to him, envy. But there is not the
least reason to believe that this bad passion, though it
sometimes made him wince and utter fretful exclama-
tions, ever impelled him to injure by wicked arts the
reputation of any of his rivals. The truth probably
is, that he was not more envious, but merely less pru-
dent, than his neighbours. His heart was on his lips.
All those small jealousies, which are but too common
among men of lettere, but which a man of letters who
is also a man of the world does his best to conceal.
Goldsmith avowed with the simplicity of a child.
When he was envious, instead of affecting indifference,
instead of damning with faint praise, instead of doing
injuries slily and in the dark, he told every body that
he was envious. " Do not, pray, do not talk of John-
son in such terms," he said to Bos well ; " you harrow
up my very soul." George Steevens and Cumberland
were men far too cunning to say such a thing. They
would have echoed the praises of the man whom they
2nvied, and then have sent to the newspapers anony-
mous libels upon him. Both what was good and what
was bad in Goldsmith's character was to his associates
a perfect security that he would never commit sudi
villany. He was neither ill-natured enough, nor lon^-



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lt)« OLIVER GOLDSMITH.

headed enough, to be guilty of any malicious act which
required contrivance and disguise.

Goldsmith has sometimes been represented as a man
of genius, cruelly treated by the world, and doomed to
struggle with difficulties which at last broke his heart.
But no representation can be more remote from the
truth. He did, indeed, go through much sharp misery
before he had done anything considerable in literature.
But, after his name had appeared on the title-page of
the " Traveller," he had none but himself to blame
for his distresses. His average income, during the last
seven years of his life, certainly exceeded 400Z. a
year ; and 400/. a year ranked, among the incomes
of that day, at least as high as 800/. a year would
rank at present. A single man living in the Temple
with 400/. a year might then be called opulent. Not
one in ten of the young gentlemen of good iamilies
who were studyhig the law there had so much. But
Jill the wealth which Lord Clive had brought fix)m
Bengal, and Sir Lawrence Dundas from Germany,
joined together, would not have sufficed for Goldsmith.
He spent twice as much as he had. He wore fine
clothes, gave dinners of several courses, paid court to
venal beauties. He had also, it should be remem-
bered, to the honour of his heart, though not of his
head, a guinea, or five, or ten, according to the state
of his purse, ready for any tale of distress, true or
false. But it was not in dress or feasting, in promis-
cuous amours or promiscuous charities, that his chief
expense lay. He had been fi'om boyhood a gambler,
and at once the most sanguine and the most unskilful
of gamblers. For a time he put off the day of in-
evitable ruin by temporary expedients. He obtained
advances from booksellers, by promising to execute



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OLIVER GOLDSMITH. 169

works which he never began. But at length this
source of supply &iled. He owed more than 2000Z. ,
and he saw no hope of extrication from his embarrass-
ments. His spirits and health gave way. He was
attacked by a nervous fever, which he thought him-
self competent to treat. It would have been happy
for him if his medical skill had been appreciated as
justly by himself as by others. Notwithstanding tlio
degree which he pretended to have received at Padua,
he could procure no patients. "I do not practise,"
he once said ; " I make it a rule to prescribe only for
my friends." '* Pray, dear Doctor," said Beauclerk,
" alter your rule ; and prescribe only for your ene-
mies." Groldsmith now, in spite of this excellent ad-
vice, prescribed for himself. The remedy aggravated
the malady. The sick man was induced to call in real
physicians ; and they at one time imagined that they
had cured the disease. Still his weakness and rest-
lessness continued. He could get no sleep. He could
take no food. " You are worse," said one of his
medical attendants, " than you should be from the
degree of fever which you have. Is your mind at
ease ? " " No, it is not," were tlie last recorded words
of Oliver Goldsmith. He died on the third of April
1774, in his forty-sixth year. He was laid in the
churchyard of the Temple ; but the spot was not
marked by any inscription, and is now forgotten*
The coffin was followed by Burke and Reynolds.
Both these great men were sincere mourners. Burke,
when he heard of Goldsmith's death, had burst intx)
a flood of tears. Reynolds had been so much moved
by the news that he had flung aside his brush and
palette for the day.

A short time after Goldsmith's death, a little poem



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170 OLIVER GOLDSMITH.

appeared, which will, as long as our language lasts,
associate the names of his two illustrious friends with
his own. It has already been mentioned that he
sometimes felt keenly the sarcasm which his wild
blundering talk brought upon him. He was, not long
before his last illness, provoked into retaliating. He
wisely betook himself to his pen ; and at that weapon
he proved himself a match for all his assailants to-
giHher. Within a small compass he drew with a sin-
gularly easy and vigorous pencil the characters of nine
or ten of his intimate associates. Though this little
work did not receive his last touches, it must always
be regarded as a masterpiece. It is impossible, how-
ever, not to wish that four or five likenesses which
have no interest for posterity were wanting to that
noble gallery, and that their places were supplied by
sketches of Johnson and Gibbon, as happy and vivid
as the sketches of Burke and Garrick.

Some of Goldsmith's friends and admirers honoured
him with a cenotaph in Westminster Abbey. Nolle-
kens was the sculptor ; and Johnson wrote the inscrip-
tion. It is much to be lamented that Johnson did not
leave to posterity a more durable and a more valuable
memorial of his friend. A life of Goldsmith would
have been an inestimable addition to the Lives of
the Poets. No man appreciated Goldsmith's writings
more justly than Johnson : no man was better ac-
quainted with Goldsmith's character and habits ; and
no man was more competent to delineate with truth
and spirit the peculiarities of a mind in which great
powers were found in company with great weaknesses.
But the list of poets to whose works Johnson was
requested by the booksellers to furnish prefaces ended
with Lyttleton, who died in 1773. The line seems to



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OLIVER GOLDSMITH. 171

Jmve been drawn exi)ressly for the purpose of exclud-
ing the person whose portrait would have most fitly
closed the series. Goldsmith, however, has been for-
tunate in his biographers. Within a few years his
life has been written by Mr. Prior, by Mr. Wash-
ington Irving, and by Mr. Forster. The diligence
of Mr. Prior deserves great praise : the style of Mr.
Washington Irving is always pleasmg; but the high-
est place must, in justice, be assigned to the eminently
interesting work of Mr. Forster.



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SAMUEL JOHNSON.

(Ii,neydqxKha BrUanmca^ December 1850.)

Samuel Johnson, one of the most eminent English
writers of the eighteenth century, was the son of
Michael Johnson, who was, at the beginning of that
century, a magistrate of Lichfield, and a bookseller
of great note in the midland counties. Michael's
abilities and attainments seem to have been consid-
erable. He was so well acquainted with the con-
tents of the volumes which he exposed to sale, that
the country rectors of Staffordshire and Worcester-
shire thought him an oracle on points of learning.
Between him and the clergy, indeed, there was a
strong religious and political sympathy. He was a
zealous churchman, and, though he had qualified
himself for municipal office by taking the oaths to
the sovereigns in possession, was to the last a Jaco-
bite in heart. At his house, a house which is still
pointed out to every traveller who visits Lichfield,
Samuel was bom on the 18th of September 1709.
In the child, the physical, intellectual, and moral
peculiarities which afterwards distinguished the man
were plainly discernible ; great muscular strength ac-
companied by much awkwardness and many infirmi-
ties ; great quickness of parts, with a morbid propen
sity to sloth and procrastination ; a kind and generous



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SAMUEL JOHNSON. 173

heart, with a gloomy and irritable temper. He had
inherited from his ancestors a «croftiloiis taint, which
it was beyond the power of medicine to remove.
His parents were weak enough to believe that the
royal touch was a specific for this malady. In his
third year he was taken up to London, inspected by
the court surgeon, prayed over by the court chaplains,
and stroked and presented with a piece of gold by
Queen Anne. One of his earliest recollections was
that of a stately lady in a diamond stomacher and a
long black hood. Her hand was applied in vain.
The boy's features, which were originally noble and
not irregular, were distorted by his malady. His
cheeks were deeply scarred. He lost for a time the
sight of one eye ; and he saw but very imperfectly
with the other. But the force of his mind overcame
every impediment. Indolent as he was, he acquired
knowledge with such ease and rapidity that at every
school to which he was sent he was soon the best
scholar. From sixteen to eighteen he resided at home,
and was left to his own devices. He learned much
at this time, though his studies were without guidance
and without plan. He ransacked his father's shelves,
dipped into a multitude of books, read what was in-
teresting, and passed over what was dull. An or-
dinary lad would have acquired little or no useful
Knowledge in such a way: but much that was dull
to ordinary lads was interesting to Samuel. He read
little Greek ; for his proficiency in that language was
not such that he could take much pleasure in the
masters of Attic poetry and eloquence. But he had
left school a good Latinist ; and he soon acquired, in
the large and miscellaneous library of which he now
bad the command, an extensive knowledge of Latin



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174 SAMUEL JOHNSON.

literature. That Augustan delicacy of taste which is
the boast of the great public schools of England he
never possessed. But he was early familiar with some
classical >vriter8 who were quite unknown to the best
scholars in the sixth form at Eton. He was peculiarly
atti*acted by the works of the great restorers of learn-
ing. Once, while searching for some apples, he found
a huge folio volume of Petrarch's works. The name
excited his curiosity; and he «tgerly devoured hun-
dreds of pages. Indeed, the diction and versification
of his own Latin compositions show that he had paid
at least as much attention to modem copies from the
antique as to the original models.

While he was thus irregularly educating himself,
his family was sinking into hopeless poverty. Old
Michael Johnson was much better qualified to pore
upon books, and to talk about them, than to trade in
them. His business declined ; his debts increased ; it
was with difficulty that the daily expenses of his house-
hold were defrayed. It was out of his power to
support his son at either university: but a wealthy
neighbour offered assistance ; and, in reliance on prom-
ises which proved to be of very little value, Samuel
was entered at Pembroke College, Oxford. When
the young scholar presented himself to the rulers of
that society, they were amazed not more by his un-
gainly figure and eccentric manners than by the quan-
tity of extensive and curious information which he had
picked up during many months of desultory but not
unprofitable study. On the first day of his residence
he surprised his teachers by quoting Macrobius ; and
one of the most learned among them declared that he
had never known a freshman of equal attainments.

At Oxford, Johnson resided during about three



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SAMUEL JOHNSON. 175

years. He was poor, even to raggedness ; aiid his aj)-
pearance excited a mirth and a pity which were equally
intolerable to his haughty spirit. He was driven from
the quadi-angle of Christ Church by tlie sneering looks
which the members of that aristocratical society cast
at the holes in his shoe^. Some charitable person
placed a new pair at his door ; but he spurned them
away in a fury. Distress made him, not servile, but
reckless and ungovernable. No opulent gentleman
commoner, panting for one-and-twenty, could have
treated the academical authorities with more gross dis-
respect. The needy scholar was generally to be seen
under the gate of Pembroke, a gate now adorned with
his effigy, haranguing a circle of lads, over whom, in
spite of his tattered gown and dirty linen, his wit and
audacity gave him an undisputed ascendency. In
every mutiny against the discipline of the college he
was the ringleader. Much was pardoned, however, to
a youth so highly distinguished by abilities and ac-
quirements. He had early made himself known by
turning Pope's Messiah into Latin verse. The style
and rhythm, indeed, were not exactly Virgilian ; but
the translation found many admirers, and was read
with pleasure by Pope himself.

The time drew near at which Johnson would, in the
ordinary course of things, have become a Bachelor of
Arts : but he was at the end of his resources. Those
promises of support on which he had relied had not
been kept. His family could do nothing for him. His
debts to Oxford tradesmen were small indeed, yet
larger than he could pay. In the autumn of 1731,
he was under the necessity of quitting the univei'sity
without a degree. In the following winter his father
died. The old man left but a pittance ; and of that



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176 SAMUEL JOHNSON.

pittance almost the whole was appropriated to the sup*
port of his widow. The property to which Samuel
succeeded amounted to no more than twenty pounds.

His life, during tlie thirty years which followed, was
one hard struggle with poverty. The misery of that
struggle needed no aggi'avation, but was aggravated by
the sufferings of an unsound body and an unsound
mind. Before the young man left the university, his
hereditary malady had broken forth in a singularly
cruel form. He had become an incurable hypochon-
driac. He said long after that he had been mad all
his life, or at least not perfectly sane ; and, in truth,
eccentricities less strange than his have oflien been
thought grounds sufficient for absolving felons, and for
setting aside wills. His grimaces, his gestures, his
mutterings, sometimes diverted and sometimes terriffed
people who did not know him. At a dinner table he
would, in a fit of absence, stoop down and twitch off
a lady^s shoe. He would amaze a drawing room by
suddenly ejaculating a clause of the Lord's Prayer.
He would conceive an unintelligible aversion to a par-
ticular alley, and perfoim a great circuit rather tfian
see the hateful place. He would set his heart on
touching every post in the streets through which he
walked. If by any chance he missed a post, he would
go back a hundred yards and repair the omission.
Under the influence of his disease, his senses became
morbidly torpid, and his imagination morbidly active.
At one time he would stand poring on the town clock
without being able to tell the hour. At another, he
would distinctly hear his mother, who was many miles
off, calling him by his name. But this was not the
worst. A deep melancholy took possession of him,
and gave a dark tinge to all his views of human na



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SAMUEL JOHNSON. 177

ture and of human destiny. Such wretchedness as he
endured has driven many men to shoot themselves or
drown themselves. But he was under no temptation
to commit suicide. He was sick of life ; but he was
afraid of death ; and he shuddered at every sight or
sound which reminded him of the inevitable hour. In
religion he found but little comfort during his long and
frequent fits of dejection ; for liis religion partook of
his own character. The light from heaven shone on
him indeed, but not in a direct line, or with its own
pure splendour. The rays had to struggle through a
disturbing medium ; they reached him refracted, dulled
and discoloured by the thick gloom which liad settled
on his soul ; and, though they might be sufficiently
clear to guide him, were too dim to cheer him.

With such infirmities of body and of mind, this cele-
brated man was left, at two-and-twenty, to fight his
way through the world. He remained during about
five years in the midland counties. At Lichfield, his
birth-place and his early home, he had inherited some
friends and acquired others. He was kindly noticed
by Henry Hervey, a gay officer of noble family, who
happened to be quartered there. Gilbert Walmesley,
registrar of the ecclesiastical court of the diocese, a man
of distinguished parts, learning, and knowledge of the
world, did himself honour by patronising the young ad-
venturer, whose repulsive person, unpolished manners
and squalid garb moved many of the petty aristocracy
of the neighbourhood to laughter or to disgust. At
J^ichfield, however, Johnson could find no way of earn-
ing a livelihood. He became usher of a grammar school
in Leicestershire ; he resided as a humble companion in
the house of a country gentleman ; but a life of de-
pendence was insupportable to his haughty spirit. He



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178 SAMUEL JOHNSON.

repaired to Birmingham, and there earned a few
guineas by literary drudgery. In that town he printed
a translation, little noticed at the time, and long for-
gotten, of a Latin book about Abyssinia. He then
put forth proposals fbr publishing by subscription the
poems of Politian, with notes containing a history of
modem Latin verse: btit subscriptions did not come
in ; and the volume never appeared.

While leading this vagrant and miserable life, John-
son fell in love. The object of his passion was Mrs.
Elizabeth Porter, a widow who had children as old as
himself. To ordinary spectators, tiie lady appeared to
be a short, fat, coarse woman, painted half an inch
thick, dressed in gaudy colours, and fond of exhibit-
ing provincial airs and graces which were not ex-
actly those of the Queensberrys and Lepels. To
Johnson, however, whose passions were sti'ong, whose
eyesight was too weak to distinguish ceruse from natu-
ral bloom, and who had seldom or never been in the
Mime room with a woman of real fashion, his Titty, as
he called her, was the most beautiflil, gracefiil and ac-
complished of her sex. That his admiration was mi-
feigned cannot be doubted; for she Avas as poor as
liimself. She accepted, with a readiness which did her
little honour, the addresses of a suitor who might have
been her son. The marriage, however, in spite of oc-
casional wranglings, proved happier than might have
been expected. The lover continued to be under the
illusions of the wedding-day till the lady died in her
sixty-fourth year. On her monument he placed an
inscription extolling the charms of her person and of
her manners ; and, when, long after her decease, he had
occasion to mention her, he exclaimed, with a tender-
ness half ludicrous, half pathetic, " Pretty creature ! *'



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SAMUEL JOHNSON. 179

His marriage made it necessary for him to exert
(limself more strenuously than he had hitherto don«^-.
He took a house in the neighbourhood of his native
town, and advertised for pupils. But eigliteen months
passed away ; and only three pupils came to his acad-
emy. Indeed, his appearance was so strange, and his
temper so violent, that his schoolroom must have re-
sembled an ogre's den. Nor was the tawdry painted
grandmother whom he called his Titty well qualified
to make provision for the comfort of young gentlemen,
David Ganick, who was one of the pupils, used, many
years later, to throw the best company of London into
convulsions of laughter by mimicking the endearments
of this extraordinary pair.

At length Johnson, in the twenty-eighth year of his
age, determined to seek his fortune in the capital as a
literary adventurer. He set out with a few guineas,
three acts of the" tragedy of Irene in manuscript, and
two or three letters of introduction from his friend
Walmesley.

Never, since literature became a calling in England,
had it been a less gainful calling than at the time when
Johnson took up his residence in London. In the
preceding generation a writer of eminent merit was
sure to be munificently rewarded by the government.
The least that he could expect was a pendon or a sine-
cure place ; and, if he showed any aptitude for poli-
tics, he might hope to be a member of parliament, a
lonl of the treasury, an ambassador, a secretary of
state. It would be easy, on the other hand, to name
several writers of the nineteenth century of whom the
least successful has received forty thousand pounds
from die booksellers. But. Johnson entered on his
vocation in the most dreary part of the dreary interval



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180 SAMUEL JORNSON.

wliich separated two ages of prosperity. Literature
had ceased to flourish under the patronage of the great,
and had not begun to flourish under the patronage of
the public. One man of letters, indeed, Pope, had
acquired by his pen what was then considered as a
handsome fortune, and lived on a footing of equality
with nobles and ministers of state. But this was a
solitary exception. Even an author whose reputation
was established, and whose works were popular, such
an author as Thomson, whose Seasons were in e'very
library, such an author as Fielding, whose Pasquin
had had a greater run than any drama since The Beg-
gar's Opera, was sometimes glad to obtain, by pawning
his best coat, the means of dining on tripe at a cook-
shop underground, where he could wipe his hands,



Online LibraryThomas Babington Macaulay MacaulayCritical, historical, and miscellaneous essays → online text (page 53 of 84)